As a novelist, I sometimes enjoy reading the diatribes of conspiracy theorists. They’re often great grist to conjure up fictional plots for my books. While the vast majority of these conspiracy and Armageddon prognosticators are ludicrous, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit some of it does in fact have kernels of truth. Or at least adds some sense of reality to what is happening around us.
Not surprisingly, the recent hysteria surrounding the downing of China’s spy balloon off South Carolina (only fifty miles from my home) brought conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork. The additional “unidentified objects” that the U.S. shot down off Alaska and over Canada only added to the hyper-imagination of those who worry about a future strewn with evil lurking in the shadows. To that, one can add the reports that Chinese nationals are illegally crossing the U.S. southern border. And what about all the land China is buying in America’s heartland, dangerously close to critical military installations that house U.S. ICBMs and B-52 bombers? More factoids that stoke the fire of the paranoid.
Perhaps the latest casualties floating above us are simply hobby balloons? Perhaps we’ll never know for sure.
I asked someone whom I deeply respect for his knowledge and levelheaded approach to things about the balloon and other objects the U.S. is shooting out of the sky. He responded:
The first big-ass balloon’s mission was probably SIGINT; an active signal gatherer. Maybe watching for crew change times at missile silos, the license plate numbers of crew members to determine their names, where they live and the names and number of family members, or some other similar innocent and innocuous activity.
The later small balloons dangling non-descript cylindrical objects may be carrying payloads.
The canister’s contents are probably not photos because images can be digitized and up- and down-linked via satellite in encrypted format in real time. Furthermore, film is an antiquated collection system. Today, info is gathered directly in digital format via super high-res CCDs.
And there would be plenty of time to send the info back “home” because the balloons linger over interesting areas for prolonged periods as opposed to, say, a U2 traveling bazillions of times faster. Well almost. The same goes for the gathering and retransmission of most other types of intelligence data.
So, this leads me to believe that the contents of the canisters must be something in physical form.
Next question: Are the contents for retrieval or delivery?
If for retrieval, my guess is atmospheric particles collected on filter media brought back for lab testing with equipment that cannot be miniaturized. For example, Iodine-131 and Strontium-90 radionuclides were searched for in the 60s; fingerprints of nuclear activity. Maybe our own canisters sniffing over North Korea? Chernobyl?
But if for delivery…I can’t think of anything good. Not explosives. Too heavy for slow balloon delivery. Must be something light and small. B.i.o.l.o.g.i.c.a.l? V.i.r.a.l? COVID-232? To take out the off-the-grid redneck militias hiding in the Idaho and Montana forests just prior to a massive Chinese or soviet foot soldier invasion?
Time to grab our go-kits, fill up the tank, visit our ammo store and convert our cash into gold mini-bars.
While clearly a bit tongue in cheek (he has a great sense of humor and a refreshing lack of political correctness), he does pose some interesting questions about what China is up to. China may, in fact, simply be up to plain vanilla spying. The same thing the U.S. undoubtedly does to China every day. Countries spying on one another, even allies, is hardly news. I find it hard to believe that the U.S., Canada, and other countries never saw such balloons or other unidentified objects floating in the sky. They either saw but chose to ignore them or were simply not looking up. My gut tells me it’s the latter. But what is it about China that has so many people focused on an uncertain and scary future?
One answer might be that China has made its global ambitions abundantly clear. It wants to become the most powerful nation in the world. And they believe they have a plan to do so. One can decide whether to take that to heart or not, but one is ill-advised to ignore it. Whether China’s spying is routine and no more than what other countries do or is nefarious and dangerous is something every nation surveilled by them should begin thinking about far more seriously than in the past.
I explored one facet of China’s hegemony in my book, Dragon on the Far Side of the Moon, where China and the U.S. have a standoff on colonization of the Moon. Fiction? Yes. But based on a lot of indisputable facts that I’ve written about in previous blogs. The same kinds of fiction and facts that are now being bandied about over balloons.
It all reminds me of the great line from an old TV series.
“Look! Up in the sky. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No. It’s…”